One of my all time favorite movie reviews was made by a now forgotten (by me) local movie reviewer on television who noted of 1989’s James Cameron directed The Abyss that it was like watching a marathon runner having the run of his life and being way, waaaay out in front and heading to the finish line in triumph…only to stumble and fall just before the end. I love and remember that review so vividly because it perfectly encapsulated the movie to me.
Ironically enough, that film featured actor Ed Harris in (double irony) a film set for the most part underwater. So here we have the barely-released-to-theaters film Phantom which features Mr. Harris in the title role of Demi, the Captain of an old, nearly obsolete Russian submarine during the height of the Cold War who has been sent on a mysterious mission that might well result in the end of the world as we know it. And like The Abyss, Phantom is a film that draws you in and keeps your attention…until it blows it big time at the very end.
The mission Demi is sent on appears, on the surface (ha!) to be a normal patrol. However, a few last minute -and mysterious- additions to his crew, including Bruni (David Duchovny), appear to have some kind of ulterior secret mission in the works. Are these new members of the crew part of a zealot Stasi group? Is their mission sanctioned by the government…or are they a rogue group out to start a war? And what of Captain Demi? We find that he suffers from epileptic seizures and may have a thin grasp of what is real and what isn’t.
All these elements mixed together form a potent, engaging brew that kept me intrigued as Phantom played out. This is old school movie making, where the action is limited but the tension and suspense are slowly built up, scene after scene. Ed Harris is pretty damn good in the title role. David Duchovny is good, though perhaps not quite as flashy in a role that required him to for the most part display an emotionless poker face throughout, leaving audiences to wonder whether he is good or evil.
And for approximately 90 or so minutes of the movie’s 98 minute run time I was thoroughly engaged.
But then came the movie’s climax and denouement and boy oh boy oh boy did things fall apart. The movie’s climax committed the lesser sin, being decent yet not-as-exciting-as-it-should-have-been all things considering. A better director and/or editor could have made this sequence a standout, with gunfire, factions fighting against each other for control of the vessel, another submarine taking aim at our protagonist’s vessel, and quite literally the fate of the world in the balance. Unfortunately, the sequence plays out in a rather drab way, ending without being all that terribly exciting.
And then came the denouement.
Wow. Just…wow. In the history of bad ideas, this one is right up there. I know the movie’s makers were trying to give us an emotional release, but this sequence was not only stupid but, frankly, borderline insulting….at least to me.
To describe it involves considerable SPOILERS, so I’ll leave you with the film’s trailer and get to that in a moment…
You still there?
Ok, so this is the deal: Duchovny and his boys have crafted a scenario where Demi’s submarine is thought to have been already sold to the Chinese. Thus, when he launches a nuclear missile at the U.S., it will be thought the submarine was under Chinese command and a war between China and the United States will result, a war that his character coldly notes will be the only nuclear war Russia can “win”. This is really clever storytelling, in my humble opinion.
However, Demi and his faithful staff manage to send out a distress signal which brings in another Russian sub. The Russians are by now aware of what’s going on with the rogue group and are intent on sinking Demi’s sub and stopping them from launching their missile and starting a war. Duchovny’s rogue group is overtaken but Demi’s submarine is incapacitated and settles on the bottom of the sea (actually on top of a sea mountain). The crew is stuck and air is running out. Demi orders one of his crew to suit up and swim to the surface to try to get a rescue party down to the stricken sub. In the film’s final minutes, we see the crew on top of the sub and the sub in port, seemingly rescued.
Not so fast…
Turns out the entire crew is dead. The sub is indeed in port, having been salvaged, but now the corpses are being brought out. The ghostly crew stands on the sub, watching as Demi’s wife and child come to pay respects to those lost. The person they sent out of the sub wound up being the only survivor and thus was able to tell authorities what really happened on board, and that Demi and is crew did not go rogue.
A ghost crew, watching as their bodies are removed from the sub?! Demi’s ghost tearfully watching his wife and child, then saluting the surviving crewmate?!
Maybe this won’t sit so bad for other viewers, but for me this ending was beyond silly. It was manipulative and childish in concept, an ending that threw away all the good will the movie managed to offer throughout the rest of its run time.
To those who still want to watch Phantom, please please please shut it off the moment Ed Harris sees the light.
You’ll be doing yourself a favor.